Rorate Caeli

The Omission of “Difficult” Psalms and the Spreading-Thin of the Psalter

The Jefferson Bible, from which the arch-rationalist clipped what he disliked

(This article is being republished by popular demand, in revised form.)

PART OF THE WORK of reassessing the liturgical reform and correcting or rejecting its mistakes consists in making known, as widely as possible, the damage and destruction that was visited upon the unbroken liturgical tradition of the Catholic Church. It has been my experience that far too many Catholics today have simply no idea how much violence was done to the liturgy in the 1960s and 1970s — and that, when they do find out about it, they are rightly and properly scandalized, stirred up with a righteous indignation, and conscious of a new desire to know how they can reconnect with the great tradition that was and is ours as Catholics.

A notable example of such damage would be the omission of so many psalms and psalm verses from the Liturgy of the Hours published in 1970 to replace the Breviarium Romanum. This fact, while well known among scholars, has received far too little attention in the public sphere. In addition to the unprecedented novelty of praying the Psalter over four weeks rather than in the course of a single week, there was the equally unprecedented novelty of skipping verses that had been deemed “difficult” or problematic for modern Christians.

Three Psalms (57/58, 82/83, and 108/109 [*]) were expunged in their entirety from the pages of the Liturgy of the Hours (have a look at them some time), while three others (77/78, 104/105, 105/106) were confined to Advent, Christmastide, Lent, and Eastertide. The following verses were permanently omitted from other psalms[**]:

Psalm 5 – 10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.
Psalm 20/21 – 8 Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. 9 You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. 10 You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among humankind. 11 If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed. 12 For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows.
Psalm 27/28 – 4 Repay them according to their work, and according to the evil of their deeds; repay them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward. 5 Because they do not regard the works of the LORD, or the work of his hands, he will break them down and build them up no more.
Psalm 30/31 – 17 Do not let me be put to shame, O LORD, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol. 18 Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
Psalm 34/35 – 3 Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers. 4 Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me. 5 Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them on. 6 Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them. 7 For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. 8 Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it to their ruin. … 20 For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land.  21 They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.” … 24 Vindicate me, O LORD, my God, according to your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me. 25 Do not let them say to themselves, “Aha, we have our heart’s desire.” Do not let them say, “We have swallowed you up.” 26 Let all those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion; let those who exalt themselves against me be clothed with shame and dishonor.
Psalm 39/40 – 14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt. 15 Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
Psalm 53/54:5  He will repay my enemies for their evil. In your faithfulness, put an end to them.
Psalm 54/55:15  Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.
Psalm 55/56:6b-7  As they hoped to have my life, 7 so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
Psalm 58/59 – 5 You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil. Selah  6 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.  7 There they are, bellowing with their mouths, with sharp words on their lips—for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”  8 But you laugh at them, O LORD; you hold all the nations in derision. … 11 Do not kill them, or my people may forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield. 12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, 13 consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob. Selah 14 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city. 15 They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.
Psalm 62/63 – 9 But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; 10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword, they shall be prey for jackals. 11 But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
Psalm 68/69 – 22 Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies. 23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. 24 Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. 25 May their camp be a desolation; let no one live in their tents. 26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down, and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more. 27 Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you. 28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
Psalm 78/79 – 6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name. 7 For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. … 12 Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord!
Psalm 109/110:6  He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth.
Psalm 136/137 – 7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” 8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Psalm 138/139 – 19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—20 those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? 22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
Psalm 139/140 – 9 Those who surround me lift up their heads; let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! 10 Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! 11 Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent!
Psalm 140/141:10  Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I alone escape.
Psalm 142/143:12  In your steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am your servant.

For 2,000 years, Christians Eastern and Western had been praying the psalter of David in its full integrity. In 1970, Catholics were handed an expurgated version, with verses removed by “experts” who knew better than the Holy Spirit, knew better than the Israelites, knew better than the Church Fathers and Doctors, knew better than Tradition. But of course they knew better: this was the Age of Enlightenment breaking in upon a fortress-like Church, an age in which we should shake ourselves free at last from the shackles of unenlightened piety, with its gnarled, enigmatic, sharp-edged, implacable expressions, and its archaic, earthy, tribal atmosphere. Razing the bastions, making the world safe for democracy, and all that good stuff.

The expurgation of the psalter is paralleled by the suppression of so-called “difficult” verses from both Testaments that had always been present in the traditional Roman lectionary but were excluded from the new lectionary, in spite of its boast of being bigger and better. These “difficult” verses include among them this spiritually poignant passage from St. Paul:

 27 Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord.
 28 But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice.
 29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord. (1Co 11:27-29)

These verses appear many times in the old lectionary, but never once in the new lectionary. Catholics who attend the Ordinary Form are not merely getting “more” Scripture, they are getting different Scripture — and the principles of selection are politically correct, ecumenical, sensitive, excluding much that is dark or difficult. In other words, the principles are rather unlike Scripture itself. The modern principles and the premodern text to which they are applied sit uneasily together. (To read more about this, see the Forward to Matthew Hazell's Index Lectionum.)

But let us return to the songs of Sion. For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, clergy, religious, and laity who follow the new Liturgy of the Hours are no longer praying the entire Psalter of David. For the first time, we are not placing on our lips and in our hearts all the words that God Himself inspired, all the words that our Lord pondered in His Sacred Heart and proclaimed with His lips, all the words that were meat and drink to old and new Israel — the spiritual bread of an innumerable host of priests and prophets, monks and nuns, hermits and holy fools, preachers and teachers. No, we have a customized and restricted diet, like one that is drawn up for a sick person or a convalescent.

This omission deprives the faithful of the opportunity to wrestle with the Word of God, like Jacob with the angel. This omission insults God by treating His inspired and infallible Word as if it were dangerous and harmful to the spiritual health of His people — indeed, much as the reform of the liturgy insulted the Holy Spirit by insinuating that He guided the Church of the second millennium into a parched and lifeless desert rather than the lush plantation of antiquarian novelties into which the liturgical experts have led us. This omission closes off the full range of Scripture, its emotional dynamism, its conflicting voices and disquieting truthfulness to life, its scintillations of the literal and spiritual senses (as when St. Benedict quotes Psalm 136:9 to urge his monks to smash the tiny beginnings of their evil thoughts and desires on the Rock of Christ).[***]

This scandal (for let us not mince words: it is a scandal of the first order) was brought to you by the Liturgical Reform — the very same reform that deliberately omitted from the new lectionary spiritually demanding verses in the New Testament.

The removal from the sacred liturgy of Scriptural passages judged too “difficult” is truly one of the great crimes committed against the Christian people in the last century. There is, however, an alternative: a Latin liturgy that has lasted for centuries, which has suited the palates of simple and distinguished folk and shows no signs of going out of date. As all know (or should know), Pope Benedict XVI legislated in Summorum Pontificum that each and every member of the Latin rite Church may pray the Divine Office with the 1962 Breviarium Romanum. Even if some might regret the heavy-handed 1911 reform of the breviary, St. Pius X nevertheless preserved intact the weekly psalter, filled with the immortal and inerrant Word of God—no exceptions, no embarrassments.[****] This full Psalter is the prayer of Israel, the prayer of Christ on earth, the prayer of the Church each week, the prayer of the Holy Spirit in every word and verse, clear and obscure, easy or difficult, consoling or demanding.

A true sign of the times: the 1962 Breviarium Romanum has been beautifully re-printed in two newly-typeset editions (see here and here). Expensive, yes, but worth every penny. Alternatively, those who are attached to the Benedictine tradition should check out the Monastic Diurnal, which contains the day offices (that is, all hours but Matins) according to the plan of the Holy Rule of St. Benedict.


[*] For convenience, I am giving both the LXX/Vulgate/Douay numbering and the Hebrew Masoretic numbering, since most Novus Ordo publications use exclusively the latter. The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours states in n. 131 that “Three psalms (58, 83, and 109) have been omitted from the psalter cycle because of their curses,” but because three others are restricted to special seasons, they end up being omitted for much of the year. Prior to 1970, the Church believed that God knew what He wanted in the psalter and in what proportion and density.

[**] The psalms are quoted in the Revised Standard Version.

[***] After noting that half of Psalm 108 (109) has been removed from the contemporary Episcopalian prayer book due to the “difficulties” modern readers have with its sentiments, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon observes:

The real problem . . . is not with the psalm, but with ourselves. We modern Christians are far too disposed to establish our personal sentiments, our own spontaneous feelings, as the standard for our prayer. Thus, if the words of a particular prayer (in this case, a psalm inspired by the Holy Spirit) express emotions and responses with which we do not “feel” comfortable, we tend to think that we are being insincere in praying it. Contemporary Christians have made a virtual fetish of spontaneity in worship, and sincerity nowadays is measured by pulse rhythm. One would think that our Lord had said: “I have come that you may have sincere and heartfelt emotions, and have them more abundantly.”
       It is a big mistake to adopt this attitude, for it places even the authority of God’s inpired Word under the tribunal of our subjective sentiments. Is it not obvious that to set up our own feelings as the measure of our worship is utterly arrogant? The proper standard for the worship of God is already established in His unfailing Word, and no one will pray as he should unless he submits his prayer entirely to the authority of that Word. Otherwise there is a real danger that our worship will express only the unredeemed sentiments of unrepentant hearts.
       If we are going to pray as Christians, it is essential that we submit ourselves unreservedly to the authority of the Holy Spirit who speaks in the inspired words of the psalms. In the present case, this will likely mean ignoring our feelings on the matter and going on to understand exactly what this psalm does, in fact, say.  (Christ in the Psalms [Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2000], 215)

[****] There can be no doubt that St. Pius X's revision of the Roman Breviary, beginning in 1911, was quite drastic, taking steps that changed the very structure and format of the breviary after centuries of unbroken use. At the same time, as Fr. Cekada explains in this very accessible introduction, Pius X was addressing a truly grave situation, where the weekly recitation of the entire Psalter had become more or less impossible, both because of the proliferation of feasts over ferial days, and because of a huge burden of psalmody well-suited for monastics but not for seculars. In other words, Pius X was taking the steps he did in order to restore to full honor a fundamental and traditional principle and to balance it properly with, on the one hand, the veneration due to the saints, and, on the other, the exigencies of pastoral life. The 1962 edition of the Breviary has some weaknesses but is still following the same approach. The 1970 Liturgy of the Hours, in contrast, is a radical departure from the Roman tradition in almost every respect.